The mininum staffing allowed for the Watertown Fire Department is 16, but Fire Chief Mario Orangio told the Town Council that is three lower than it should be.
With that many firefighters on duty, Watertown has three fire engines, one ladder truck, one ambulance, as well as a deputy fire chief and his aide on duty at all times. Too often, however, members of the department are busy, leaving the department short staffed.
In 2008, Orangio wrote a report recommending Watertown have at least 19 firefighters on duty at all times, and he hoped that would support his recommendations.
"Unfortunately that was not the case. They supported the 16-man minimum," Orangio said. "My feeling is that is precariously understaffed. If one person is away means not being able to provide sufficient coverage."
During a fire, firefighters on the ambulance assist with search and rescue, Orangio explained. However sometimes the ambulance crew won't be available, such as when they are taking a patient to a hospital.
Currently, the Fire Department has 83 firefighters, which is nine fewer than in 2000. Orangio added that two of the firefighters are waiting to go to the State Fire Academy, so they cannot go into burning buildings.
In 2011, the Fire Department responded to 4,535 calls, with 71 percent being medical calls and six percent being fires, Orangio said. He worries the number of calls will continue to rise.
"With the increasing number of housing units it will contribute to the number of calls increasing," Orangio said. "We are really at a breaking point when it comes to staffing."
With lower staffing, the Fire Department has lost some services, such as education, Orangio said.
"Public education is probably the weakest areas due to budget cuts," Orangio said. "We have cut the SAFE (Student Awareness of Fire Education) programs and we cancelled our open house during Fire Safety Week."
The recommended Fire Department budget for Fiscal 2013 is $7.81 million, said Town Manager Michael Driscoll. The budget includes nearly $350,000 to provide raises if the firefighters union signs a contract, Driscoll said. If an agreement is not reached, the money will go back into the town budget.